A Wigan drugs gang “Mr Big” has been jailed for his role in a £12m plot to smuggle illegal tobacco into the UK inside fridges, microwaves and vacuum cleaners.
Former businessman Timothy Gibbs-Stringer was unmasked last year as the Wigan link in a North West heroin and cannabis dealing ring, before he was jailed for 13 years.
And it has now emerged he was a middle man for a massive international tax fraud, involving hollowed-out white goods and household appliances.
Empty fridges and freezers were loaded with untaxed tobacco at the Luxembourg headquarters of cigarettes dealer Timothy Newman, Manchester Crown Court heard.
Once the shells were transported to the UK, and the tobacco haul was unloaded, they were then shipped back to the continent to be re-used.
Gibbs-Stringer, 55, formerly of St Malo Road, Whitley, who was part of an 11-strong gang, was given a 26-month jail term, to run alongside his 13-year drugs term, after he admitted a tax conspiracy offence.
Another convicted conspirator, David Hilton, 50, of Coal Pit Lane, Atherton, was jailed for three years this week.
And two Wigan men were given suspended prison sentences for playing more minor roles in the operation.
Robbie Dunn, 23, of Northcroft, and Richard Birtwistle, 56, of Bold Street, Pemberton, were also ordered to carry out 100 hours community service.
Jail sentences totalling 21 years and three months were handed out among gang members, with ringleader Newman receiving a four-year sentence.
Speaking after the case Tony Capon, an assistant director for HMRC’s fraud investigation service, said: “This was a sophisticated criminal network set up to smuggle, transport, store and sell illegal tobacco on a massive scale, purely to evade tax and line their own pockets.
“This gang took smuggling and tax evasion to the limits and made a serious assault on the UK public purse, stealing millions of pounds from the taxpayer, robbing public services of vital funding and undermining legitimate local businesses.
“We want to create a level playing field for businesses and to protect the taxpayer.”
An investigation will now take place, under the Proceeds of Crime Act, in a bid to recoup some of the ill-gotten gains made by the gang.
People suspecting anyone of involvement in the counterfeit tobacco trade are being asked to ring a fraud hotline on 0800 788 887.